Today’s class opener caused a student to string together a sequence of words I don’t think I’ve ever heard in this history of sentences:

Can we please just factor now?

Today I exposed my freshmen classes to Fermi Questions, a series of unusual estimation experiences, like the one we started with below:

The Fermi site here provides a slider where you can change the power of 10 to integer values. Some students had trouble wrapping their heads around the expectation, until some students summarized the ideas quite nicely:

- It has to be in the thousdands.
- I don’t think it could be in the millions.
- Think about how many it would take to go along the side and multiply.

Students really got into the estimates, and I enjoyed listening to them argue their position with neighbors while attempting to estimate unknown quantities. I facilitated the group-think by moving the slider based on loud “higher” or “lower” from the group, until it seemed we were satisfied. The site then gives you a result and a score based on how close you were. There are a few thousand questions on the site, and we got through about a dozen today before settling into class.

Some of my favorite questions are those which demand a negative exponent, such as this one:

Determine the diameter of a 22 caliber bullet divided by the length of the Nile river.

Do we think it is one-tenth the length? One hundredth? One millionth? This was a fun way to re-visit laws of exponents, especially negative exponents.

While most of the class was engaged in the discussion, a few shyed away, which led to the quote at the start of this post. Are this questions really so threatening to students that they would RATHER factor? It also plants the seeds for some potential stats data collection, down the road.

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